Videodrome is core science fiction in which director David Cronenberg truly hit his pace as an innovator of bizarre intellectual concepts. He not only introduced the first fully-realized virtual reality world in a movie, he did it with more dangerous ideas than had ever seen the light of a movie with major distribution: insidious technology, underground video, porn, violence, sado-masochism and snuff movies.
They're all in the service of a film concept that in its maturity was light-years ahead of the competition. Readers of fare like Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch possibly felt right at home, but most of the 'normal' 1983 audience was lost, lost, lost.
David Cronenberg's erratic films before Videodrome were a hit 'n miss string of exploitative shockers with strong core ideas. Shivers and Rabid had grandiose concepts that overshadowed their grindhouse content: the powerful ideas made an impact far beyond mere nudity and gore. Shivers was a gloss on Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Scanners hit the jackpot with a commercial hybrid of Philip K. Dick's expanded-consciousness world. Superpowered minds could invade other minds to control and destroy, but finer implications gave way to chase scenes and exploding heads, surefire audience-pleasing material. 1
Videodrome recycles previous Cronenberg ideas - strange new body orifices, exploding bodies, technological conspiracies to transform mankind - and adds the Dickian idea of altered reality. We experience Max Renn's disconcerting hallucinations as his mind is altered by the Videodrome video signal. Max becomes the classic surreal hero of Buñuel, an Archibaldo de La Cruz or Horrible Dr. Hichcock exploring new conceptual territory with his eyes wide open. Cronenberg used this big theme to spectacularly transform the limited original concept of The Fly. In his remake, a transformation into a monster becomes a voyage of grotesque but miraculous possibilities. Seth Brundle has to confront the mortality of the flesh and the alien-ness of his own body as he outgrows his human form, keeping 'souvenirs' in his medicine chest. Max Renn has been infected with a similar plague that is also changing him from the inside out, and he too has to learn to embrace an unknown future he calls 'the new flesh.' Scientific progress blends with spirituality when the ultimate escape from 'the old flesh' becomes all too obvious.
Cronenberg really hits his directing stride with Videodrome. For the first time his actors are all top-rank. The effects don't overpower the story and the story doesn't rely on a chase to sustain its thriller framework. The revelations are paced well and we accept some truly weird happenings as matters of fact. A television is transformed into a veined and pulsing sexual organ; Max Renn pulls an organic pistol from a vagina-like slit in his stomach. 2
James Woods proves himself perfectly suited to playing a basically sympathetic character that nevertheless is a voyeur and softcore smut peddler. The little touches he gives the role become funnier on repeated viewings. Deborah Harry makes a terrific early impact and then exits the film to become a virtual presence, which probably sparked resentment among Blondie fan-base who wanted her character to stick around longer. Nicki Brand is one of the few convincing masochists in movies and makes the erotic connection Cronenberg needs. A surreal heroine, she goes straight to the center of her obsession and never looks back.
Among the excellent supporting players is Lynne Gorman, who Cronenberg manages to make intriguing just by allowing her to be a woman older than fifty with a sexual appetite. Cronenberg also introduces a comic irony beyond his penchant for bizarre character names. At one point Max Renn tries on a pair of dark-framed glasses and for a second 'transforms' into a substitute David Cronenberg. During an escape in an alley, Renn passes workers moving a series of doors. Are they a visual pun for the 'doors' of consciousness?
But what we remember the most are the bizarro instances where erotic and technological taboos merge. Max Renn is able to have physical sex with a pair of lips on a television screen, and his 'stomach vagina' hides weapons and itself becomes a perverse weapon. For these illusions Cronenberg creates visual representations that go a step beyond classical film surrealism, as we share in the sensations of the surrealist adventurer instead of merely observing him. Some concepts aren't as well established, however; in one scene Renn's obscene gun-arm (shades of The Quatermass Xperiment) is meant to shoot not bullets but instant-growing cancerous tumors.
There's also the gross ending where Max Renn is shown the next step in his personal evolution by a virtual Deborah Harry, who might as well be speaking to him from The Matrix. His crossover is accomplished by imitating something he sees on television. Cronenberg's movie ideas in these early films were way, way out there in the best possible meaning of the term. They're always driven by a coherent interior logic.
Criterion's exhaustive special edition of Videodrome is clearly a labor of love. Veteran Karen Stetler is joined by Marc Walkow in the producer credits. The plentiful behind the scenes docus and galleries are mostly overseen by special effects maestro Michael Lennick, but are secondary to the conceptual riches offered by the interviews, commentaries and essays. The literary voices are Carrie Rickey, Gary Indiana and Tim Lucas, who was a frequent visitor to the film's Canadian set. The commentators are Cronenberg, his cameraman Mark Irwin and his stars Woods and Harry. All are verbally articulate about the film and their work in it. Disc one also has a short Cronenberg film from 2000.
Disc two has a very good docu about the makeup effects, utilizing lots of original video from the set. There are also separate audio interviews with makeup effects men Rick Baker and Lennick. A section called Bootleg Video includes the complete footage of Max Renn's softcore Samurai Dreams cable show and seven uncut minutes of Videodrome torture sessions, including 'notorious' material cut from the film. The stills and visual galleries are here. Topping it all off is an original featurette and better yet, a 1981 roundtable interview with Cronenberg and fellow directors John Carpenter and John Landis, all involved at the time in fantastic films. The least demonstrative of the three, Cronenberg seems the only one with "something to say."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Reading The Three
Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch was for Savant a necessary prerequisite to fully understanding
this film. Videodrome throws so many verbal and visual concepts at us that without some sort
of preconditioning, it's too easy to reject them. I saw the film three times when new, and
this was the first time that I was receptive to the its central fact: Spectacular Optics plans
to use Videodrome's signal to destroy "bad" citizens who want to see taboo visual content. Don't
they realize that that really means all of us?
2. In Alien it was hard to accept an alien creature that appeared
to be made of organic materials and chrome steel at the same time. In Videodrome Renn's
organic melding with a steel gun is a kind of practical evolution, and his changing a man's hand into a
hand grenade (most of us don't recognize it as such) is like a gag from a Looney Tunes cartoon.
In the fly, Seth Brundle finally partially becomes fused with his own invention, dragging steel the door
of his teleportation pod behind him like an albatross. Cronenberg wants to man to fuse with his inventions,
like the morbid car fans in Crash.